Whiteness in TV

As an avid television viewer, I am constantly on the lookout for new shows: dramas, mysteries, thrillers, sitcoms, and more. Currently, I’ve been watching many ABC shows, including but not limited to Modern Family, Black-ish, Fresh off the Boat, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder. Yet, I look at the title of each show, and it seems to speak volumes about today’s culture.

In Ian Haney López’s book, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race, he makes a bold claim when he says, “White should renounce their privileged racial status. They should do so, however, not simply out of guilt or any sense of self-deprecation, but because the edifice of Whiteness stands at the heart of racial inequality in America” (López 2006, 23). If I look specifically at the sitcoms, Black-ish and Fresh off the Boat (Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder deserve their own blog post), then it seems that the dominant white privilege remains instilled in the minds of Americans. ABC shows reach millions of viewers, and, yet, in the two sitcoms, we see how difficult it becomes for whites to renounce their privileged status.

In the two sitcoms’ titles, we see a lack of appreciation for other cultures. The “ish” on the end of Black is a direct connotation toward the family’s white tendencies. They live in a wealthy suburban home. The kids attend a predominantly white private school. Andre and Rainbow each have high-paying jobs as an advertising executive and doctor. In each episode, they are trying to establish their black culture or black tendencies, and yet they ultimately do “white” actions.

The title, Fresh Off the Boat, denotes an “otherness” about the family. The title can also be association toward immigration or slave boats, which demonstrates a “non-whiteness aspect” about the family. Thus, we see in the show’s plot that the family is indeed trying to be white. The show stems around the concept of an Asian family trying to fit in a white suburban neighborhood in Florida. The family moves away from Chinatown and, suddenly, they are constantly trying to mold themselves to their neighbor’s standards. The father figure opens a western-themed restaurant with white workers. The mother power-walks with the white upper-class women in her neighborhood. They go to American cookouts, and the oldest son is trying to fit in with the cool white kids in his school. The oldest son is also constantly trying to distance himself from his family in order to be “cool.”

While each show is merely exaggerating the stereotypes found within society, I wonder if these are the types of shows that ought to be airing. While they are satirical, sarcastic, and hyperbolic, do you believe that they are merely perpetuating the stereotypes or pointing out how ridiculous the stereotypes are? While cloaked in humor, the concepts of these shows center on a common theme: the superior white culture v. an inferior non-white culture. It also seems that the shows demonstrate López’s claim about the transparency phenomenon. He states, “transparency is established and maintained first in the assertion that Whites are a physical grouping and second in the assertion that everyone knows what White is” (López 2006, 19). We intrinsically recognize when each of these characters are acting “white” and “nonwhite,” which I believe is a problem in itself. What do you guys think?

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7 thoughts on “Whiteness in TV

  1. I have not seen, nor heard of either of these shows, however the first thought I had while reading this was “Oh jeez”. Not because I do not support the implementation of black culture into television, but rather because you describe these shows as a comedy. I am nervous that those these shows have good intentions (sharing the experience of being black in America), they will come off as a parody. Thus, making a joke out of very real issues. Depending on the angle of the show, if the show relies on too many jokes, the issue itself will come off as a joke.
    Conversely, I think Black-Ish is especially interesting because it displays the racism in upwardly mobile black experiences. Perhaps, (and “perhaps” only because I have not seen it), the show is an honest sitcom about the black middle class in the white culture. Perhaps, this show acts as a vessel to display to the American people what the black middle class goes through and how their black identity effects them, even when they are not the stereotypical lower class. The social commentary may submerge those viewers into the actual real life problems that still occur today in an effort to remind people that yes, racism is still very much alive. Perhaps, the title and storyline is to reflect the world we live in today. A world in which whiteness and blackness is a personality trait, not just a skin tone; where your skin tone defines who you are, no matter where you stand in the social hierarchy.
    I guess the point of this comment is, I don’t have a problem with this show for showing us what is very very real in our current society. I think it is a great idea for people to relate and to be brought back to reality. However, what makes me nervous is that it will become too much of a sitcom and therefore, continue to emphasize and turn very real problems into somewhat of a stereotypical joke.
    Please note, I have not seen this show, nor have I heard of it, and I may be completely off base, but I am more than willing to hear your personal thoughts!

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  2. I also think this issue is very important, Allison. It has come to the point in society where certain actions are considered white or black. Whiteness and blackness, instead of simple being physical appearances, are actually descriptions of personality and character. More than once in my life, I’ve heard people qualify another person as “so white.” The problem with this is that they were not talking about the pigment of someone’s skin. Instead, they meant that person was very innocent and sweet. Why has white become a synonym for innocent? This unintentionally implies that calling someone “so black” would mean just the opposite. As you pointed out, the characters in the TV shows are denoted as “white” or “nonwhite,” having nothing to do with their skin color. “Whiteness” has become holding down a substantial job, obeying the law, living in a suburban neighborhood, and so on. Recognizing the descriptions of black and white as personality attributes is just as harmful to society as blatant racial slurs. What do you think about this? Is this a problem worth our consideration?

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  3. Going off of the previous comments, I think that the shows that Allison mentions are problematic for a couple of reasons. First, as Jessica pointed out, they are sitcoms. I do not have a problem with sitcoms in general, but it is important to realize the underlying messages that are being poked at as funny. In the case of Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, the underlying messages are about the assimilation to white standards of living in America. Pop culture helps to uphold structural problems of racism, sexism, etc., by poking fun at these issues. Second, there does not appear to be anything in these shows that rebukes this way of thinking. (By “this way of thinking”, I mean making a parody of race.) If humor were used as a tool to shed light on a problem and create an open dialogue for race so that the general population could be better educated on racial issues, that would be one thing. However, in these instances humor is used to shed light on a problem and make it into a comedic situation, therefore exacerbating the problem.

    We have to start somewhere. So I think the fact that more television shows are being broadcast that include a wider range of the population (different races, sexualities, etc.) is generally good. However, at some point we have to move past poking fun and start making viewers realize where the real issues lie.

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  4. I love this discussion. I personally am a fan of the show “Black-ish” because in so many ways, I can identify with it, being a black girl from a suburb who’s brother likes Pokemon, computer games, and ran cross country (all things that helped him identify with “white” friends moreso than “black). My dad reallllly, and i mean really, wanted my brother to play basketball, but he just wasn’t good at it..much like Andre’s teenage son. My dad would sometimes make comments about how spoiled we are, or that we listen to “white” music, while he grew up in navy housing that his brothers refer to as “the roach motels” because they were so worn down in a black neighborhood. I love this show because it not only speaks to our generation of middle class black kids growing up, but also to our parents having to navigate the awkwardness of upward social and economic mobility. It speaks to the fact that navigating a white workspace can be sooooo unnecessarily awkward (i.e. Andre’s co-workers always saying “whattup brutha” and racially charged stuff like that), and to a white watcher who may not necessarily understand that those kind of comments aren’t in fact “cool” to black people, though its funny, it might spark a reality check. If it was too intense, I dont think many white viewers would watch it, and less would be exposed to the reality this show illustrates.

    Unlike some of the comments, which have great points, I think that it’s helpful that Black-ish (I haven’t seen Fresh off the boat) is a comedy, because it has the perfect balance of “wow the life of a black person in traditional white spaces is difficult to navigate” and comedic relief from super deep issues. It’s the only reason I can stand to watch it, otherwise it might hit too close to home and I’d have to watch buzzfeed videos in between to give myself some type of comedic release. Thoughts?

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  5. Candise, I definitely agree that ABC gets more viewers to watch Black-ish precisely because it is a comedy. Your comment, “If it was too intense, I don’t think many white viewers would watch it” is also extremely interestingly, and, alas, I believe true. Yet, this comment made me ponder whether I believe that television is another “white space.” Thus, why can’t there be a different, more serious show that highlights the same issues that Black-ish does? Is it because of the viewers? Or is because television itself is a white world–or a white-dominated space–that censors shows that aren’t up to its norms or standards? For me, when I think of shows that have a predominantly black cast, I think of sitcoms: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Cosby Show, That’s So Raven, ect. I just believe that we are at time in history when we can move past the traditional sitcom, where black casts are usually placed. By broadening the types of shows with black casts, we can begin to make television more than a white space. What do you think?

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